Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009: Major Lessons Learned

It's New Years Day, and you know what that means: it's time for year-end reflections. (Well, we should have done this a few days earlier, but I was enjoying my vacation too much). It has indeed been quite a year in politics, from euphoric highs (the inauguration) to agonizing lows (health care compromises). A lot of good was done in 2009, and as a result, millions of Americans will be better off than they were a year ago. However, the administration and Congress ultimately fell short of some of its most important goals, and I think it's crucial to understand why. Thus, I present, the most important lessons learned in 2009.

1. Our political system has serious institutional problems. There is a lot to be said about what Barack Obama has done right and what he has done wrong this year. But it’s hard to evaluate anything he’s done without appreciating that much of the bad stuff that happened in 2009 can be traced back to problems in our political institutions. In fact, the failures of the Obama Presidency in my view can be attributed largely to two things: the filibuster and the media/general public’s view of conventional wisdom. These things are problems rooted in two key institutions of our democracy: our legislature, and the so-called fourth estate.

The problems with our political institutions start and end with the United States Senate. By now you all know my feelings about the world’s most deliberative and unproductive body. Even if it were governed by majority rule, it would be uniquely undemocratic, because Senators from Wyoming and California have the same amount of votes, despite the latter’s 40-fold population advantage over the former. But beginning in the past few years, all legislation, pretty much, gets subjected to the 60-vote threshold. It’s not just legislation either. EVERYTHING is subject to a 60 vote threshold. If you want to call for a conference for the House and the Senate on the bill, you need 60 votes. If you want to vote on an amendment…60 votes! Simply proceed to debating a bill…60 votes! The problem is that everything in the Senate is done by unanimous consent. That means, if one Senator objects, the only way to override their objection is with 60 votes. Republicans have delayed nominations with broad bipartisan support by abusing their unanimous consent privilege. An unemployment extension couldn’t come up for a vote for four weeks because the Republicans forced procedural delays. When the bill finally came up, it passed with unanimous support.

Now it would be one thing if it was JUST the 60 vote requirement that was plaguing us in the Senate. The Democrats have 60 votes, critics say, so why can’t we just do anything we want? Once you line up 60 votes, you have to invoke cloture. Once you invoke cloture, you wait 30 hours. Then you vote on cloture. Then you wait another 30 hours. Then you vote on the bill. If the bill is in the form of a manager’s amendment or a substitute amendment, you might have to go through this process 3 or 4 times. That means that the Senate often spends up to two weeks on even non-controversial legislation.

The filibuster itself is not new, but the rampant abuse of it is. Earlier this decade, Democrats almost always allowed Republicans to hold an up-or-down vote on legislation. On the nomination of Samuel Alito the Supreme Court, Democrats who opposed the nomination nevertheless supporting holding a vote. Same for George Bush’s bankruptcy bill. Democrats were unhappy, and some of them were eager to obstruct in any way possible. But enough of them realized for a democracy to function, the majority must be allowed to work its will (with reasonable constraints). I know for sure that Democrats didn’t pull the delay shenanigans on uncontroversial bills we’ve seen all year. At the very least, a SUPER majority was able to exercise its will!

The filibuster is bad for so many reasons, so I’ll just list a few of the problems it has brought on during 2009. First, the filibuster gives power to a small block of moderate Senators. If one party has anywhere from 55-60 votes, the power will rest with the few majority members who want passage of a particular piece of legislation the least. Because the leadership knows that these members are perfectly happy killing a bill, they’ll do anything to win their support. These members are well aware that they can hold bills hostage until they get what they want. (see: health care). Therefore, bills are basically written by 5 or 6 Senators who barely even want the bill to pass, even if a strong majority of the Senate supports the bill enthusiastically. This is just fundamentally unfair, and undemocratic.

Second, the filibuster enables the minority party to pursue an agenda of complete obstruction. The Republican has calculated that it will do best in 2010 and 2012 if the Democratic agenda fails. The Republican Party now has the institutional tools available to make obstruction a reality. In an ideal democracy, Democrats would have the power to enact their agenda, and the voting public would judge whether that legislation has made things better or worse. Our elections become false choices. The American people are unable to judge the policies of the elected majority. They are judging an agenda watered down by hundreds of compromises, compromises that will make bills inevitably worse or less effective. Because these policies will end up not being effective, the minority party will benefit, and may even become the majority party. Thus, our system is rewarding obstruction and stagnation. Not exactly a path to progress.

Both parties have made use of the filibuster, but it inevitably hurts Democrats and progressives. Our ultimate political goals are progress, new policies that bring us more security and opportunity, innovation etc. The right’s ultimate goals are to preserve the traditions of a glorified past, to maintain society’s general order. The right’s goals can be achieved through stagnation. Ours cannot.

The other deeply troubled political institution is the media. The right-wing media, led by Fox News, dole out outrageous claims almost daily, and have poisoned our political discourse. Personalities like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly sew the seeds of fear and hatred into millions of red-faced, mostly old Americans. There’s not much we can do about these loons in a system that treasures free speech.

Of more concern to me is the utter ineptness of the mainstream media. It’s not just that they cover politics like it’s a game, focusing on spectacles like Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford instead of anything important. It’s not just that the media glorifies centrism for centrism’s sake, and gives a hero’s treatment to centrist Democrats who make policies worse just for the hell of it. It’s not just that they care more about some vague notion of bipartisanship than they do about good policy.

The biggest media abuse is that they don’t ever challenge the conventional wisdom. For instance, they’ll cite voters’ worry about the deficit and lazily imply that the deficit is caused exclusively caused by Obama’s domestic programs. They’ll regurgitate absurd statements from the likes of Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney and not challenge them.

When the conventional wisdom is wrong, and no one challenges it, that’s a major problem. When absurd views are presented as one opinion among many, that’s also a major problem. That’s the media in 2009.

2. Governing is a lot harder than being in the opposition.

This one may seem rather obvious, but it's something I didn't quite appreciate until the Democrats had complete control of Washington. You can find almost any reason to oppose a piece of comprehensive legislation. For the minority, this is great news. It allows you political cover to oppose legislation without recourse. You can come up with great, politically palatable reasons to vote against something, and even if its a completely different reason than your colleagues, it allows you to unite with members of your party, and it fires up your base.

For the majority, it means that it's really difficult to cobble together a coalition. Various factions within the coalition are pitted against one another, because they have different reasons (sometimes dubious ones) to oppose legislation. This infighting demoralizes and turns off your political base.

It's especially hard to govern when you're being ambitious. Any good bill contains sacrifices that are easy to demagogue. The Republicans, who have threatened to cut Medicare since its inception, had a field day attacking the Democrats' effort to trim its excesses.

Yet another reason why our system is very good for stagnation...

3. People still have incorrect assumptions about things, and that's got to change.

I really thought that the election of Barack Obama was not just a political sea change, but a paradigm change in our country's collective policy preferences. With last year's economic crisis, I thought supply-side economics had been thoroughly defeated in the public arena. I thought we were entering a new era in which there would be a deep distrust of corporations, and a new willingness to let the government protect our economic security.

Partially due to the media malpractice discussed above, and partially because of President Obama'a unwillingness to challenge the American people, these paradigm changes have not taken place. In fact, some of the assumptions that have plagued our policy discussions for a generation still take hold. Polling suggests that the American people are still deeply skeptical of government, even more so than private enterprise. The American people still assume that even during a recession, the government should "tighten its belt" and "live within its means." Not even the President has tried to explain that the government should do the exact opposite during a recession, to spur demand that the private sector cannot generate. One poll actually showed that a plurality of Americans thinks that if the stimulus packaged were discontinued, MORE jobs would be created. It all comes from a deeply held view that government spending is superfluous and not helpful to the average American.

In a representative democracy, it shouldn't matter that the general public has misguided policy views. But these views have been exploited by Republicans, who sense political opportunity in talking about the deficit and government spending. Centrist Democrats have sensed the political dangers in the deficit, and have tried to prove how "fiscally disciplined" they are. President Obama has not tried for months to explain exactly how government spending would help people. He hasn't explained that money to states and local governments are needed to protect critical public service jobs. He hasn't explained how short term investments in infrastructure, and a strengthening of safety net programs will give Americans more money in their pocket to invest into the economy.

President Obama and Congressional Democrats have made a huge mistake by not trying to change these perceptions. As a result, somehow policies that make absolutely no sense (cutting spending during a recession) are considered "common sense."

Similarly, the American public has no understanding what has caused the federal deficit. There is a perception, promoted by a relentless Republican attack, that the deficit is caused by President Obama's stimulus. This is verifyably false. The deficit is caused primarily by three factors: the economic downturn, massive Bush-era tax cuts, and giant sums of money funneled to the War in Iraq. No Democrats have tried to explain this. Instead, they feed into the "conventional wisdom" by tacitly admitting that the deficit is caused by President Obama's spending programs.

In fact, the last decade can be summed up by the ways in which we've accumulated large deficits. A huge deficit would have been worth it if we had invested in children and the middle-class. Instead, we spent money on pointless wars, and tax cuts for the wealthy. I think this speech sums up the decade up perfectly.

So these are the key lessons learned in 2009. Hopefully the President has learned these lessons and hopefully he'll seek to correct these problems in 2010, so that we can continue to deliver for the American people.

To all the loyal readers, thanks for your support and happy 2010!

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